Emily Hill on how Lord Black’s super-wealthy wife has been found guilty in the British press of having too much stuff and refusing to apologise for it.
‘Happy Birthday Barbara’, today’s Guardian bellows at Barbara Amiel, the British-born wife of disgraced Canadian fat cat, Lord Conrad Black of Crossharbour.
Click on a tiny picture of Amiel’s ever-youthful head on the Guardian website, and you enter the online business section which offers a downloadable PDF of the seating plan for Amiel’s sixtieth birthday party (which took place seven years ago). It’s been revealed that the evening cost Black $62,869 and 57 cents, a fact which has been brought up as evidence at Black’s ongoing trial for corporate fraud. ‘Even by the exacting social standards of Conrad Black, it was a gathering of quite staggering opulence. There were six billionaires in the room – plus a Rockefeller, a Rothschild, a selection of America’s top broadcasters and a comedian famed for dressing in drag as an ageing Australian dowager’, the Guardian reports.
Lord Black’s fall from grace has been monumental. A Canadian billionaire who gave up his Canadian citizenship to become a British peer, Black operated at the centre of a glittering London social scene, filled with political big wigs and star columnists. Once the third most powerful press baron in the world, he now stands accused of having pocketed millions from his American-based company Hollinger International. He allegedly pilfered the money in order to fund a life of luxury for himself and his wife, Barbara. He faces 17 counts of fraud, tax evasion, money laundering and obstruction of justice, and faces a maximum of ‘101 years in jail’ if found guilty.
But it is not Black’s fall from grace that fascinates the British press. All the real bile is spared for his wife, who has been transformed into a modern-day symbol of why greed and desire are sinful, and why it is better to be hard-up but happy than rich and apparently rude.
Amiel is a hard-working, right-wing, pro-Israeli former newspaper columnist who was born in Watford, England, in 1940. She moved to Canada as a teenager when her mother remarried and her father committed suicide. She moved out of her mother’s house when she was 14, boarding at a brothel and working in a succession of low-paid jobs in order to put herself through school. She eventually won a place at the University of Toronto and after graduation she moved into journalism. Her writing career took off. After eventually moving back to Britain she wrote prominent columns at The Times and The Sunday Times. She married Black in 1992 and took her column to the Telegraph in 1994, where Black was then proprietor.
The media coverage of Black’s trial, putting aside all that dreary stuff about large-scale corporate corruption, now focuses largely on Amiel’s court outfits (which are expensive) and her court behaviour. She apparently called a female journalist who tried to get into a lift with Amiel and Black a ‘slut’. A biography by notorious celebrity hatchet-jobber, Tom Bower, has helped stoke the flames of today’s Barbara-hate, so much so that, despite his various legal troubles, Black has launched a libel suit against Bower and his publishers. Black alleges that the book portrays his wife as ‘grasping, hectoring, slatternly, extravagant, shrill and a harridan’ and contains a ‘keyhole, smut-mongering side-piece portrayal of [Amiel] as a man-eating sex maniac’; that she is a ‘Nazi apologist’ who is ‘barbarously rude to domestic staff’ and an ‘altogether repulsive personality’.
These views have pretty much tinted the media consensus on Barbara – even positive profiles go on about what a ‘sexpot’ she once was. And now we have the transformation of the City sections of various newspapers into the business world’s version of Hello! magazine, where it is hard to distinguish between straight reporting on Black’s trial and yet more titillating revelations about Amiel and her shoes and dinner parties etc etc. (The Guardian business section’s report on Amiel’s sixtieth birthday party reads like something from heat: ‘The richest man in the room was Michael Bloomberg…. Elsewhere was the flamboyant property developer Donald Trump ($2.9bn)… a clutch of celebrity wives – including Sir Evelyn de Rothschild’s spouse, Lynn, and Henry Ford II’s widow, Kate…society doyenne Arriana von Hohenlohe and Ahmet Ertegun, a music impresario.’)
spiked is no fan of the Blacks, or of fat cats in general. But what really lies behind the Barbara-bashing of recent months? Read closely the allegations that Amiel is a ‘man-eater’ and you will see that barely-concealed prejudice against women who work their way up from having very little (consider Amiel’s teenage, brothel-boarding years) to having an awful lot. Look at all the coverage that mentions Amiel is a ‘woman from Watford’ and you will catch a whiff of the old British snobbery against the nouveau riche who come from ‘crap towns’ and think they have a right to take on the world.
Then consider all the obsessive coverage of how much money Amiel spends on clothes, shoes, bags, parties, houses and suchlike, and you will spot that very contemporary notion that material wealth and the desire for stuff is wrong, wrong, wrong. In Britain it seems we prefer our wealthy women to be more like Anita Roddick – that is, stinking rich but with the humility to dress like a part-time schoolteacher and to bang on about the poor people of Africa and Latin America. Amiel is held up as a modern-day sinner against the pieties of sustainability and austerity, someone who dares to wallow in and flaunt her wealth in a garish, footballer’s wife-style fashion, which some commentators find so very trashy and vulgar. (Throw in the fact that Amiel also defends Israel and you really do have the makings of a deeply unfashionable woman ripe for being attacked.)
Amiel has been made into a symbol of opulence, extravagance and vulgarity, and in the process transformed into a shining lesson to the rest of us about how being rich only makes you unhappy (or at least spoilt and demanding). Thanks for that old-fashioned tip, but some of us would like to take the risk of riches anyway; we may not want to be like Amiel, but we’d quite like to be as wealthy as her.
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